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Ski patrolwoman Uschi Hill skis along a ridge in the Bridger Mountains north of Bozeman during a 2002 field day with MSU's avalanche research team. (Anne Sherwood photo)

Avalanche research rides wave of popularity

By Evelyn Boswell

Fresh from an interview on "Good Morning America," Ed Adams was drinking coffee in Times Square when he realized how bizarre his world was and how popular avalanches had become.As it started to sink in that he had just followed former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and First Lady Laura Bush on national television, people began pointing at him. Then they came over to ask him about avalanches and his life as a snow scientist.

"It was a little bit surreal," said Adams whose avalanche work was featured this year in National Geographic Adventure Magazine and "Nature Tech," a program on the History Channel.

Adams can understand an affection for snow. He was an English graduate, after all, who moved to Utah, took up backcountry skiing, and then returned to school to begin researching avalanches. He is now an associate professor in civil engineering at Montana State University-Bozeman. Despite all that, Adams is still mystified about the attraction that avalanches hold for others.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are into the wilderness and backcountry," he theorized. "Not quite the 'X Games,' but I think people are just more interested in the whole outdoor adventure sport thing."

"The other side of it from a more practical standpoint is that people are building houses and roads closer and closer to the hazard," he added "People are moving into avalanche terrain."

People may also have a growing interest in science because of the television shows that celebrate it. Avalanches-just looking at the science behind them-are complicated and interesting, Adams said. Then there's the fact that North America had 58 fatalities from avalanches in 2002/2003, 30 of those in the United States.

And don't forget the drama of a snow tsunami.

Ed Adams
Although the team's fieldwork with avalanches in the Bridger Mountains captures media attention, much of Ed Adams' work takes place in an indoor lab at MSU.(Jeannine Lintner photo)

"I think people find avalanches exciting. It's a big dynamic natural force."

"I think people find avalanches exciting," Adams said. "It's a big dynamic natural force. You are dealing with several levels of hazard beyond the avalanche, including explosives and unpredictability. That sort of thing."

Whatever the reason, MSU has become known for its avalanche expertise. Building on a reputation that began decades ago, Adams' work has attracted magazine writers and television crews from all over the world who've heard about the shed that's bolted to a boulder in the mountains near the Bridger Bowl ski area. They come to watch Adams and his team set off a bomb and, from inside the shed, monitor the avalanche that flows around them. Then, there's the indoor laboratory-officially known as the Cold Regions Lab-where MSU's cold weather scientists use CT scans and other sophisticated tools to study snow and ice crystals in a temperature-controlled environment.

Both locations provide sensational photos and footage, as well as significant results.

Adams, Jim Dent and other colleagues have discovered that snow on a uniform slope moves like a block instead of a liquid as previously thought. They've found, too, that the sliding snow produces heat, which indicates a general loss of energy.

"I look at the microstructure of the snow, how it bonds together and how it bonds to various layers, and then how that might influence whether we're prone for avalanche conditions or not," Adams told "Good Morning America."

Different approach by different folks

Adams looks at avalanches from an engineering angle. He considers snow and ice to be engineering materials, so he applies the principles of engineering physics to their study. But MSU has earth scientists, ecologists and mathematicians who study snow, too, and they see avalanches with different eyes. These varied approaches have led to projects and collaborations both within and outside of MSU. One uniting goal has been the desire to predict avalanches more accurately.

"Snow can change quickly -by the minute- and we want to understand better how to analyze characteristics of weakening that occur in snowpack," Kathy Hansen said when it was announced that she and Karl Birkeland were heading a two-year study to look at the stability of snow layers at three locations in southwest Montana and in other western states. Hansen is a professor in earth sciences. Birkeland is an adjunct professor at MSU and avalanche scientist with the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Bozeman.

One location for their study will probably be west of West Yellowstone in the Lionshead Mountains, Hansen said. That area has been studied for several winters, and avalanche advisories are made from there. Other areas in Montana may include the Bridger Mountains and the Madison Range. The researchers will also consider an area in Canada and one in Colorado.


Karl Birkeland of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center is collaborating with Kathy Hansen, Adams and others on a avalanche study in southwestern Montana. (Doug Chabot photo)

"Because the play between weather and geography is variable from year to year, we must be ready to go where the geography has produced a weak layer within the snowpack for study," Hansen said.

Working with Hansen and Birkeland are Kalle Kronholm of Denmark, a postdoctoral researcher who just completed his doctorate in Switzerland; Eric Lutz, a doctoral student who is finishing his master's degree in Switzerland; and Spencer Logan, a master's degree student in earth sciences.

The group is using a SnowMicroPenetrometer to gather detailed information about snowpack and a Quantified Loaded Column Test to measure the strength between snow layers. The researchers want to look for patterns in snowpack and strength and see how they change between sites and over time.

"This has been a very exciting project," Hansen commented.

In other MSU ventures, Simon Trautman and Jeannette Romig, both master's degree students in earth sciences, are researching wet snow avalanches. Studied much less than dry avalanches, wet avalanches occur in warming weather and have "visible free water" moving in the snowpack. Romig is looking through the Westwide Avalanche Network data base and the Bridger Bowl data base to see what she can learn about the factors that lead to wet snow avalanches. Trautman is looking at snow strength and water movement through snow.

Wet snow is a topic that has long piqued the interest of Steve Custer, their advisor and associate professor in geology.

"In the Rocky Mountain West, people tend to not pay attention to wet snow avalanches because, of course, we have the cold smoke," he said. "Everybody wants to ski in dry powder and cold. There's a lot less emphasis on wet snow."

Birkeland agreed.

"We understand probably quite a bit less about wet snow avalanches than dry snow avalanches, maybe because avalanche people don't want to ski in wet snow," he said. "Most deaths are due to dry snow."

More to come

The ability to predict avalanches is valuable for scientists and outdoor enthusiasts, but also for travelers. That's why MSU researchers in the civil engineering department and the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) are working with the Montana Highway Department. That's also why Adams and the WTI signed a five-year agreement promoting collaborations with the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, the Nagaoka Institute of Snow and Ice Studies in Japan and the Institute of Low Temperature Science at Hokkaido University in Japan. The agreement took effect in June.

"Severe weather conditions and natural hazards affect our civilization in many ways," the agreement stated. "Economic costs associated with dependable mobility are enormous and a growing population has led to more frequent impacts on society from extraordinary climatic events worldwide. In order to address this, a call for an international effort to mitigate the effects of natural hazards and severe weather is warranted."

It sounds like avalanche experts could have more Time Square moments in their future.

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